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The Passenger Pigeon

October 2, 2022

Martha - Passenger Pigeon - At Natural History Museum, 2015 (Smithsonian)

A Common, and Tasty Early Nineteenth Century Bird, Now Extinct

Two hundred years ago the flocks of Passenger Pigeons flying over Ontario were quite the sight to see. Often numbering in the millions, it might take several days to fly over a particular location, but this spectacular occurrence only occurred occasionally, typically between April and August. Large nestings were recorded in Douro, Bexley, Laxton, Somerville, Fenelon and Verulam Townships. Their English name is derived from their migratory habits, as they flew great distances, at speeds that could reach 100 km/h. The Anishinaabe word for pigeon, miimii, is the namesake of the village of Omemee.

When settlers arrived and started creating farms, many of them found pigeons to be a nuisance, because the flocks feasted on the grain crops that were so important to families trying to scratch out an existence in the backwoods. John Langton observed that they did not “spread generally over the field, but commence at one end & work their way regularly to the other, they do not cause as much mischief as they otherwise would, where they have been there is not a vestige of vegetation & we can sow something else, but the rest of the field is uninjured.”

Though the could devastate settlers’ field crops, when the great flocks descended it was a unique chance for the humans to feast also. Pigeons were remarkably unwary. They could be slaughtered in the thousands, because they rarely fled even when shots started ringing. Sometimes they flew low enough to be brought down with sticks, which could also be used to knock them out of trees. Being a good sized bird, about 15 inches long when mature, Catharine Parr Traill observed, they “are good any way you cook them: roasted or in pies.”

In the early nineteenth century, the North American population of passenger pigeons numbered in the billions and was the continent’s most populous bird. In some regions they were commercially harvested—some operations could kill more than a million birds at a time. They were sold for food or netted for trap shooting. In the Kawarthas pigeon hunting seemed to have been non-commercial.

By the 1880s, the species was clearly endangered, and they were all but extinct by the end of the century. It generally agreed that humans caused their extinction, but the exact reasons are not clear. Over hunting, and the deforestation of the eastern deciduous woods where they lived are typically blamed. Another theory is that the domesticated pigeon may have introduced diseases. But whatever the causes, by the end of the century, the species was all but extinct. The last recorded wild pigeon in Ontario was seen at Penetanguishene, in 1902. Martha, thought to be the world’s last passenger pigeon, died at the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914.

Being a special treat, there were many recipes of how to prepare passenger pigeons. Catharine Parr Traill recorded four of them:

Roast Pigeons

Pluck and draw your birds; mix bread crumbs with a little parsley chopped fine, some butter, pepper and salt; put a little into the body of each bird; lard and roast them: twenty minutes, with a good fire, is long enough. The basting will serve for gravy,—or add a little butter, and a very little boiling water after you have taken up the birds, and heat it in the pan your pigeons were roasted in.

Pigeons in Crust

Stuff your birds as above, and cover each one with a thin crust, of short pastry; bake half an hour.

Pigeon Pie

Season your pigeons well with pepper and salt; as many as will lie in your pie-dish; dust a little flour on, thin; add a cup of hot water; cover your pie, and bake half an hour.

Pot-Pie

Pigeons stuffed, larded and cooked in a bake-kettle, are very nice; and are tenderer, and more savoury than when baked in the stove. To make a pot pie of them, line the bake-kettle with a good pie crust; lay in your birds, with a little butter put on the breast of each, and a little pepper shaken over them, and pour in a tea-cupful of water—do not fill your pan too full; lay in a crust, about half an inch thick, cover your lid with hot embers, and put a few below. Keep your bake-kettle turned carefully, adding more hot coals on the top, till the crust is cooked. This makes a very savoury dish for a family.

Pigeons are best for table just after the wheat harvest: the young birds are then very fat.

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